The Long Read: Nayib Bukele is trying to wrest control of El Salvadors capital from the grip of murderous gangs. His weapons? Gentrification, Instagram and YouTube
Though San Salvadors Mercado Central is statistically one of the most dangerous areas of one of the most dangerous cities in the world, an outsider wouldnt know it just by walking through. It is, admittedly, congested, stretching across a few dozen blocks that throb with tens of thousands of vendors, clogging the roads with makeshift stalls and tables. Women hawk tamales and bags of cut papaya, or ladle steaming coffee into flimsy polystyrene cups that buckle from the heat. Boys push wheelbarrows of ice water, bananas, and mangoes past rows of mannequins modelling cheap leggings. This is one-stop shopping at its most frenetic. Life and commerce thrum. Violence here is largely invisible until, of course, it isnt.
San Salvador is both the political and homicide capital of El Salvador, a country where, since 2014, the number of murders has surged after the unravelling of a two-year-old gang truce. Gangs have been running Mercado Central for years. According to Salvadoran journalist scar Martnez, in a 2015 report on the swelling of violence in the city centre, they tell vendors where they will sell, how much they will pay for the space to sell Sometimes they even tell them who to vote for. Gangs come to the market to recruit children to join their ranks, or to collect renta a euphemism for protection money from vendors and stores, or to menace and, when they deem it necessary, to kill.
In response, San Salvadors young mayor, Nayib Bukele, is attempting to solve the problem of this rag-tag market, in part, by dismantling it. It is an ambitious project for Bukele, an upstart politician who, at 33, and with just three years of experience in public service, won the most important mayoral seat in the country in 2015.
Previous mayors have attempted to physically remove unregistered vendors from Mercado Central, which led to rioting. Bukeles strategy is to entice them to move by building new markets just outside the city centre (construction is slated to be completed by 2018). Instead of haggling from makeshift stalls in the middle of pavements and roads, his plan would allow vendors to operate through leases, in safe and sanitary conditions.
The plan, known as the reordenamiento (reordering), also calls for the revitalisation of the city centre, where the countrys oldest and most majestic buildings including the citys main cathedral and national theatre stand in disrepair, nearly forgotten. Such an aggressive embrace of gentrification is Bukeles way of addressing a fundamental disconnect between the rich and poor in Salvadoran culture, which he sees as one of the root causes of the countrys violence. If you know your neighbours, Bukele believes, you wont try to kill one another.
Predictably, almost every vendor I spoke with at Mercado Central in January, less than eight months after Bukele had assumed office, resented the plan. We wont move, an elderly woman declared from behind her tables stacked with bars of soap and childrens toys. It is our right to be here, she said. If we have to, we will fight to stay!
Nayib cannot make us move! someone else shouted.
Oh, theyll move, Bukele told me a few days after my visit to the market. Theyll want to move. Theyll pick up their own umbrellas and walk to the new market themselves. He paused, then cracked a smile. And were going to film it.
That someone of Bukeles profile and limited political experience could gain control of a capital city is a sign of how impatient Salvadorans are with the status quo. Though El Salvador is about the size of Wales and comprises less than 14% of the population of Central America, it accounts for more than 35% of the regions homicides, nearly all of which go unpunished. Disenchantment with the countrys two major parties runs deep. Bukeles party, the leftist Farabundo Mart National Liberation Front (FMLN), began as a group of guerrilla revolutionaries during the countrys civil war, which lasted from 1980 to 1992, but its leaders have lost their populist edge and the party is now widely seen as having sold out. Meanwhile, the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena), which controlled the government of wartime El Salvador, is seen as the corrupt guardian of the elites wealth.
Bukele, by contrast, is met with the fanfare and admiration of celebrity. In the past year, while reporting on the violence in El Salvador and the exodus of citizens that it has unleashed, Ive heard Bukeles name Nayib, Nayib, Nayib issued like a trumpet call, from schoolyards in Oakland, California, to cornfields in El Salvadors sun-parched east. Even those who oppose his policies concede that he is making profound changes, and thus, at worst, speak of him with respect.
Popularity may not be the remedy for a social crisis, but it is at least a galvanising force and, in El Salvadors case, a timely one. Nearly 25 years after a catastrophic civil war, which left more than 75,000 people dead, El Salvador is now effectively at war again. The countrys three main gangs MS-13, Barrio 18, and the 18th Street Revolucionarios control most towns and cities, battling over territory, while making money from small-time drug deals and extorting businesses and locals. To disrespect a gang member, or neglect to pay rent, or pass into a rival gangs zone, is to risk death.
Following the collapse of the gang truce, prisons are now at 325% of intended capacity. Even tiny holding cells, meant for temporary confinement, are crammed with suspected criminals who spend months if not years awaiting trial. Police patrols are on the rise, and several illicit killings of suspected gang members have been exposed by a dogged local press, who risk retribution from both the police and the gangs. In 2015, a total of 6,640 Salvadorans were murdered an average of 104.2 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. (By comparison, in 2014, the US averaged five homicides per 100,000.) More than 3,000 people were murdered in the first six months of 2016 up 7% from last year.